Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited was a bestseller in England and the U.S. in the 1940s and a huge success as a BBC and PBS series in the 1980s. In her compelling and insightful biography, Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead, Paula Byrne shows how personal the book was for Waugh. He wrote the novel for himself, he said, with little regard for sales. He strenuously denied that the setting or the characters were based on a specific home or family, emphasizing this with an Author’s Note, signed E.W., that reads: “I am not I: thou are not he or she: they are not they.” Yet it has long been accepted that a real family, the Lygons, and their home, Madresfield, or “Mad,” as it was affectionately called by Waugh and the family, were the inspiration for the novel.

Byrne’s very readable book has several aspects. Her extensive research enables her to separate truth from fiction with regard to Waugh and the Lygons, demonstrating, for example, that the novelist made use of composite characters and the experiences of others, rather than creating portraits directly from his own life. Byrne’s depiction of the remarkable and tragic Lygons, often quite different from the family in the novel, would make for fascinating reading even if they had never known Waugh. His first visit to “Mad” was in 1931, shortly after his conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1930. Byrne shows how Waugh, for whom friendship was an art, enjoyed his visits with the Lygons, in particular the daughters Dorothy and Maimie, and her detailed discussion of Brideshead helps us to better understand “the obsessions that shaped his life: the search for an ideal family and the quest for a secure faith.”

Byrne believes that Waugh has been misrepresented as difficult and unpleasant, often to those closest to him. By tracing his entire life, she gives us enough background to make our own judgments. Throughout much of his life he felt like an outsider; as a writer, this stimulated his imagination and his comic vision. Yet Waugh wrote that his years at Oxford were “essentially a catalogue of friendships,” many of which continued throughout his life. His life, his son Bron wrote, revolved around jokes; this was the witty Waugh whose company the Lygon daughters enjoyed. At the same time, he could be snobbish, acerbic and cutting. At Oxford in the 1920s he began drinking heavily, a habit that would continue until his death in 1966.

This superb book combines literary biography, family history and literary criticism. The result is an irresistible mix that is both an authoritative look at Waugh’s best-known novel and an excellent introduction to the life and work of one of England’s greatest 20th-century writers, and to the world he knew.

Roger Bishop is a frequent contributor to BookPage.

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